Rhode Island: Tax oil for climate adaptation?

Source: By Daniel Cusick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, August 24, 2020

Rhode Island is a small state, but legislation before its General Assembly could generate big money to fund municipal climate adaptation and resilience projects.

Oil companies would shoulder the cost through a 5-cent tax on each barrel of oil imported by ship through the Port of Providence, according to the bill.

Sponsors say the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience (OSCAR) Fund could generate $1.9 million annually for climate resilience projects as rising seas and severe storms threaten the Rhode Island coast.

The fund, which would translate to one-tenth of a cent per gallon of fuel to consumers, would help pay for upgrades to public infrastructure, including the hardening of roads, bridges and culverts, sponsors say. It would also be used to pay for floodplain restoration, water gardens and other green solutions.

“I think it stands a very good chance, and I’ll tell you why,” said Democratic Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who introduced the legislation in the state House of Representatives.

“We’ve got 39 cities and towns, and they all operate independently,” she said. “This is a way to help those municipalities promote climate control projects without it costing any direct money to the state. We can be big shots [on climate change] without actually dipping our hands into our own pockets.”

Opponents say the bill imposes an additional tax on oil products at a time when Rhode Island is suffering from a weak economy and the coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 1,000 people in the state. The bill was introduced in January before the COVID-19 virus became a national emergency.

Nevertheless, layoffs and other stresses are straining people’s home budgets.

“As it stands, Rhode Island has some of the highest energy costs nationwide, and this would only raise the costs even higher, making our state a less than favorable place to live in and/or to run a successful business in,” wrote Roberta Fagan, executive director of the Energy Marketers Association of Rhode Island, in a letter to the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee.

Providence is a major arrival port for oil used for home heating, transportation and other petroleum products for the southern New England region, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Vella-Wilkinson and co-sponsor Sen. Erin Lynch Prata represent the coastal city of Warwick, population 81,000.

In a widely published op-ed last week, the lawmakers said Warwick “has become the epicenter of climate change … where coastal beaches and parks are under siege from rising seas and erosion from intense coastal storms.”

Revenue from the fund would reach beyond the coastal zone, Vella-Wilkinson said in an interview.

In February and March 2010, weeks of heavy rainfall swelled the Pawtuxet River to 21 feet, or 11 feet above flood stage. The government later termed it a 200-year flood and among the worst in Rhode Island’s history.

Rhode Island has been among the most proactive New England states on climate change and is home to the nation’s first operating offshore wind farm, on Block Island.

In 2014, legislators created an Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council that led to the state’s first carbon emissions reduction plan in 2016. More recently, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo committed the state to meeting a 100% clean energy standard by 2030, and she has proposed a $69 million green bond to fund a variety of projects, including municipal resilience.

The state also has a climate adaptation plan known as “Resilient Rhody.” The plan received a boost last month when the Department of Environmental Management awarded $4.3 million in matching grants to municipalities and nonprofits to advance resilience projects.